It was the last day of a four-day Fall walking tour along the Jurassic Coast, the Dorset section of England’s South West Coast Path. My travel companion and I had set off early that morning from the seaside town of Swanage, a town known historically for its distinctive Purbeck marble used in many of England’s southern cathedrals, including Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, but which smacked to me of a smugglers haven and a fine setting for a future novel. Having seen our walk the day before from the vantage point of a tour boat, we were anxious about arriving at our final destination in time for the spa treatment we had booked to celebrate the completion of our inaugural walking tour. Though we hadn’t had trouble timing our previous days, seeing one’s route laid out before you sure provided a different perspective on the task we had set ourselves.
Under sunny skies, we trooped east along the beach and then clambered up into the hills. We were soon walking along the cliff tops, where cornflower blue skies and aqua waters offered a picturesque contrast to the white chalk cliffs of the Purbeck Peninsula. Other than encountering a buffed young man in black fatigues wielding an impressive pair of binoculars (bird watching … apparently), and briefly being joined by a lady I had encountered the day before, we had the path to ourselves. We made it in good time to Handfast Point, the most easterly point of the Jurassic Coast. From there we had prime views of three chalk stacks that formed the legendary Old Harry rock formations, named for a local pirate who, in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, scored the French and Spanish coastlines, capturing ships loaded with daily essentials such as olive oil, wine and jewels. Looking east, Studland Bay occupied the foreground, with its stretch of beaches which we soon discovered had played a pivotal role in D-Day preparations. After that, accessible only by a ferry that plied its way back and forth across the narrow opening to Poole Harbour, lay our final destination, Sandbanks, apparently Britain’s version of Palm Beach, boasting the fourth highest land value by area in the world. (Have to admit, I left the next day scratching my head as to why.) Then finally, stretching further east along the coastline was the hazy outline of Bournemouth, Dorset’s largest coastal resort town.
After our brisk start, we now slowed our pace, having only walked an hour and a half and knowing we had plenty of time to keep that all-important spa appointment. On our approach into Studland, we stumbled across Fort Henry, a WWII bunker located on a hill overlooking the bay, so named in honor of the home base of the Canadian engineers who had built it. From this distal vantage point, Winston Churchill, King George VI, American General Eisenhower and British General Montgomery had watched the beach being bombarded by live rocket fire from battleships and fighter planes of the Allied forces. Codenamed Exercise Smash, it was the largest live ammunition exercise of the whole war, which had included the landing of thousands of infantry as a training exercise to the Allied invasion of Europe.
It was a sobering experience to walk along the same beaches that 70 years before had been heavily booby-trapped with thousands of land mines against invasion (beaches now fringed with beach shacks and littered with holiday makers); to know that the inner heathland, covered that day in a sea of purple heather, had been pounded by British rocket-firing Typhoons and American Thunderbolt fighter-bomber planes.
Thoughts of wars past and present soon returned to the present as I started to notice that the family groups on the beach had given way to an older generation, a group of people who did not seem to need what most of us would consider an essential for the beach. Then I recalled a conversation I’d had with my travel companion during the planning stages of the trip, one centered on cultural differences in the use of language. She had read that a section of beach on Studland Bay was reserved for naturists. How odd we thought, that nature lovers got to have their own patch of beach. On further reading however, we realized that in British English, naturist was the equivalent of nudist. Very cultured and civilized use of language, wouldn’t you know.
Feeling decidedly overdressed, we sauntered along the beach, eyes straight ahead but still able to see expanses of wrinkled flesh of the few bathers enjoying the unseasonably good weather and warm waters of the English Channel in mid-September. It was a quick eyes-right when one particularly portly gentleman stood up from his beach chair and executed a full stretch. And though I tried not to peek, it was difficult to miss the middle-aged couple playing, of all things, paddle ball in the nude, with their bits and bobs flying one way then the next.
Once we were well past the invisible barrier for the naturist section, my friend and I plunked ourselves upon the sand. Stripped down to our T-shirts, we looked enviously at the few swimsuit clad bathers, bemoaning the fact that we hadn’t worn our swimsuits on under our clothing as I had suggested we do. I even did a quick reconnoiter of the heathland to see if there was enough privacy for a quick change but decided not to chance it. So there we sat, unable to believe that we were on a beach, in England, with a warm September sun beating down on us, but not able to go for a dip in the water.
Eventually recalling our all-important spa appointment, we reluctantly rose from the warm sand, hefted our back backs and started the final leg of our walk around the headland to catch the ferry to Sandbanks. It was only as we were getting on the boat, that the irony of our situation struck me. Trying to control my laughter, I informed my friend that we were right idiots. There we sat, bemoaning the fact we couldn’t put on our swim suits to go for a swim … on a nudist beach!
Well, we may not have been smart enough to figure out how to go for a swim on a nudist beach with no swimsuit, but when I discovered that our hotel had an outdoor pool, I insisted we take the plunge, just so we could boast that we had swam outdoors on the southern coast of England in September.